- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 8, 2011

THE HAGUE, Netherlands | Plucking lice from schoolchildren’s hair may not seem an obvious way to win the heart of a nation, but it worked for the Argentine-born ex-investment banker who will be the next queen of the Netherlands.

As Kate Middleton settles into her new life, she need only look to Princess Maxima, wife of the heir to the Dutch throne, for an example of how to make the tricky transition from commoner to royal.

Dutch Crown Prince Willem-Alexander’s engagement 10 years ago to a woman whose father was a government minister in an Argentine dictatorship sounded like a gift to the Dutch republican movement seeking to end the nearly 200-year-old monarchy.

Instead, Princess Maxima - the former Maxima Zorreguieta - helped bring the distant House of Orange closer to the people. She topped a recent poll as the most popular Dutch royal, beating current Queen Beatrix and her husband.

The popularity of Maxima, 39, and other princesses elsewhere in Europe has soared thanks to a carefully cultivated blend of the common touch - one was a journalist, another a real estate agent, yet another a single mother - and the glamour and grace demanded of royalty. They are constantly on the covers of gossip magazines, yet try to live relatively normal and private family lives.

In Maxima’s case, that could mean inspecting a guard of honor one day, and the next day taking her turn as “lice mother” at her three daughters’ school, inspecting children’s hair.

Maxima and her Australian-born Danish counterpart, Crown Princess Mary, got a head-start in the popularity stakes by mastering the tricky language of their new homeland.

“She won us over by speaking Dutch to start with,” said Marc van der Linden, chief editor at the Netherlands‘ Royalty magazine.

Maxima started learning the language before her relationship with Willem-Alexander was public knowledge. By the time she first spoke publicly following the announcement of their engagement, she dazzled the nation with her nearly flawless Dutch.

Kate Middleton, who is now the duchess of Cambridge and will likely one day be called a princess, does not have a language barrier to overcome. But she did win fans in Wales when she sang the Welsh national anthem after dedicating a new lifeboat.

Maxima is so popular in the Netherlands that an exhibition is opening this month at the former royal palace, Het Loo, in the central city of Apeldoorn to mark her first 10 years in the country.

The couple’s relationship blossomed after they met in 1999 at a festival in the Spanish city of Seville while Maxima was a New York banker. The Crown Prince, now 44, introduced himself simply as Alexander and did not exactly make a lasting impression.

By the time they had their first date three weeks later in New York, “I’d forgotten what he looked like,” Maxima once said.

Johan Ter Molen, curator of the Maxima exhibition, said Kate Middleton would do well to pay a visit to get a glimpse of how her life will be turned on its head.

“The biggest change for both of them is that they come from a relatively protected environment into the limelight and will never be able to leave it,” he said. “It is a sort of glass cage you step into and remain for the rest of your life.”

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